In June this year, I sent out a tweet regarding our attendance at the World Board Gaming Championships held in Lancaster, Pennsylvania at the end of July and announced that we were interested in meeting up with designers, publishers, fellow war gamers, etc. In answer to that tweet came our introduction to Ryan Heilman who was designing Brave Little Belgium with Dave Shaw. We set up a meeting at WBC and got to sit down with them to play the game and shot a quick interview on the game.
As a follow up to that interview, I reached out to Ryan and Dave with some more in-depth questions for them on the design.
Grant: First off Dave and Ryan tell us how you met and how you both came to work on this Brave Little Belgium design together?
Ryan: Dave and I met 40 years ago at St. Dominic’s Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland. We both attended the school for all 8 years but did not really start hanging out together until 5th grade. Our connection really formed around war games and role-playing games. We spent much of our free time in school and out playing games and creating scenarios for games. Dave and I went to two different high schools and lost touch with another until about 9 years ago when we reconnected on Facebook. The online connection turned into a friendship again as we reconnected over board games. This interest in board games eventually led us to decide to create our own board game, Brave Little Belgium.
Grant: Why did you choose to do a game on this aspect of World War I meaning the initial German invasion of Belgium?
Ryan: I have always been very interested in WWI since I first purchased Avalon Hill’s Guns of August for a school report I was completing on the subject. As part of my report, I took the map from Guns of August and the figures from Axis & Allies to recreate the Western Front of the war. While the figures did not quite match, I know that this recreation of the war greatly impressed Dave.
Although I did not spend much time studying WWI after that, my interest in the topic was renewed when I began teaching World History and US History at the high school level. I always spent a significant amount of time on the topic helping the students understand the reasons for the start of the war as well as why the US became involved in the war.
Dave: I became interested in World War I when we studied it in 8th grade. It was around that time that Ryan did his project using Guns of August, and I decided I wanted to try the game out myself. My mom got me the game (and several others) as an 8th grade graduation present. I loved the game, and decided to read more about the war, as well as studying it and learning more about it.
The idea behind BLB came to me in 1993. It was the spring of my junior year in college, and my then-girlfriend (now wife) went to Belgium for two weeks to visit some friends who were doing an exchange program in Leuven. As we visited multiple places in Belgium (Brussels, Liège, Namur, Ghent, Antwerp), I was struck by how many memorials and monuments were erected to honor those who fought in WWI. It was there that I got the idea of doing a game that would focus on the opening battles in Belgium during the 1914 campaign. I then filed the game away mentally, and that’s where the game has been for the last 25 years.
Grant: What references did you use to ensure the historical accuracy of the game? If you had to recommend one book on the subject what would that be?
Dave: The primary books we consulted were:
The World War One Data Book, John Ellis
Atlas of World War One, Martin Gilbert
The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman
If you only have time to read one book, read A Short History of World War One, James Stokesbury
In addition, we also consulted several sources on the internet for maps, photographs, and the order of battle. Wikipedia proved to have a surprisingly accurate OOB. Finally, we consulted previous games like 1914, Western Front, and Guns of August.
Grant: Tell us about the chosen name for the game. Why did you choose Brave Little Belgium?
Ryan: Brave Little Belgium struck us as a great slogan that the rest of the world (particularly Great Britain) used to confer the admiration it had for how the small Belgian nation resisted the mighty Prussian war machine. And it’s a very alliterative title!
Grant: How does this design fit the Hollandspiele model for eclectic games that focus on smart game play? Why did you choose to go with Hollandspiele?
Ryan: The design and initial development of the game overlapped with the launching of Hollandspiele as a company. We were thus reading a lot about their games and design philosophy while creating Brave Little Belgium. In some cases, purposefully and in some cases quite organically, their basic philosophy creeped into the game. Thus, when it came time to submit the game for publication, Hollandspiele was tops on the list. We did submit the game to additional companies and did receive offers to publish it but in the end it made the most sense to go with Hollandspiele.
Dave: Brave Little Belgium is a very eclectic game in that it focuses only on a small aspect of the beginning of World War I and does so in a very unique way. In addition, it’s a game that requires the German player to deduce the best paths to allow for him or her to quickly penetrate Belgium and get to France. The Allied player most likely has the more difficult task, as he or she has to figure out a way to stop the German juggernaut. Smart play is something that is essential and it is something that Hollandspiele understands very well.
Grant: What is the goal of Brave Little Belgium and what type of a gaming experience did you hope to create?
Ryan: We both feel that it is really important as game designers to tell some sort of story within your game. To that end, the goal of Brave Little Belgium was to retell the story of the beginning of WWI when Germany was fighting against the Allied powers of Belgium, France, and Great Britain to get through Belgium as quickly as possible and take Paris. We wanted to create a game that would give the German player the feeling of the extreme urgency of a situation in which he or she is facing statistically inferior forces but only has a limited time to achieve his or her goal. At the same time, we wanted to give the Allied player the feeling of being outnumbered and outgunned but with ingenuity and craftiness, he or she still has the ability to delay the Germans enough to better prepare the defenses around Paris.
We also wanted to focus on a subject that has not been widely covered by other games. Most WWI games focus on the entire Western Front, with the invasion of Belgium playing a small role in the overall game setting. Brave Little Belgium puts the first weeks of the invasion into sharp focus, and hopefully will help gamers learn that, while Belgium probably couldn’t have defeated the Germans, they didn’t just roll over and let the Kaiser’s army waltz through the country, either.
Grant: What is the time frame of the game and how long is each turn?
Ryan: The game takes place between August 3rd and August 27th. While the first turn begins on August 4th, there is a German cavalry movement at the beginning of the game representing cavalry movement into Belgium and Luxembourg on August 3rd. Each turn is 3 days so thus there are 8 turns total in the game.
Grant: The map is a very integral part of the design. Who designed the map? Why did you feel that point to point movement was the right choice for the game?
Ryan: We designed the original prototype map in the summer of 2016. Although we had originally conceived the game as a hex and counter game, we quickly realized that a point-to-point system would work better given the nature of the game and the target audience for the game. We were trying to create a game that would be quick-moving and would appeal to beginners and veterans alike. The point-to-point system seemed to make that all possible.
Dave: The map went through major revisions in the winter of 2017-18. We tightened the game, removing most of the towns and cities in the western part of Belgium. We also redid the movement lines, simplifying them while at the same time trying to provide accuracy in movement times. Finally, we added in all the final charts and trackers before submitting it for publication. Now that it is in development, the map will be completely redone by a professional graphic designer.
Grant: The key areas of the map are the fortresses in Namur and Liège. But there are other routes for the Germans to reach France through Belgium. How did you focus on history with these routes but also create some options for players to experiment with?
Ryan: There are several routes that the German player can take to get through Belgium, and it was very important when creating the map to focus on the key areas that were involved in the war, as well as some additional possible options. To that end, when designing the map, we used several maps from WWI to figure out the most important sites involved in the war. In addition, we researched many of the major battles and battle sites so as to make certain to include those on the map. Finally, we researched and included additional towns and cities along the routes to provide additional options for the players.
Grant: Where is the point that the Germans are trying to reach on the map? How do they best go about reaching this goal?
Ryan: The German player has several objectives that they must meet in order to win the game. First, the German player must destroy the two major Belgian forts at Liège and Namur. While doing this, the player also needs to make certain to traverse Belgium and get infantry troops across the victory line in the Western part of Belgium and France. The position of the victory line was chosen so as to represent the approximate position historically of the Germans by August 22nd-August 24th. The German player tends to primarily focus on two major paths to reach this goal, a northern route and a central route. The northern route bypasses the forts and allows the player to proceed fairly quickly through Belgium, although the fort at Antwerp can be a major stumbling block at the end. The central route requires the player to first destroy at least one of the forts at Liège or Namur prior to proceeding through Belgium. If the German player can quickly defeat one of the forts, this can be a fairly effective route. The last possible route (which so far has been less used) is the southern route. The German player can try to move the 4th German Army, this way but it is slow and a long route to take. This is because the route goes through the Ardennes region, which had few good roads and was heavily forested.
Grant: What is the focus of the Allies and how do they best go about stopping or at least slowing down the German advance?
Ryan: The focus of the Allied player is to prevent the Germans from destroying the two forts at Liège and Namur and from crossing the victory line. This is a rather hard task, and we do expect the success rate for the Allied player to be much lower than that of the German player. We are still playtesting to determine the exact numbers. Regardless, the Allied player has several possible ways to stop or to slow down the Germans. One way is to place as many of the Allied forces in the different towns and cities along the various routes. In that way, they can act as ‘speed bumps’ to the German onslaught. Another method is to group large forces together in key locations like the major forts. The hope being that even if the Allied player cannot stop the Germans from reaching the victory line, then he or she can at least stop the German player from destroying one of the forts. The role of the Allies in this game is fairly straightforward: the Germans were on a strict timetable in their invasion of the West, and any delay, even by a few days, would seriously imperil or even wreck that timetable.
Grant: Tell us about the Garde Civique counters and the role they play in the defense? How are they placed on the map and what is their real advantage?
Ryan: The Garde Civique historically were a militia group that existed in Belgium between 1830 and 1920. Their major role was to keep order in the major cities of Belgium. During the war, they were mobilized on August 4th and given orders to, among other things, guard bridges, secure lines of communication, and keep order. The Germans saw the Garde Civique as an irregular military group and thus not subject to international law protecting prisoners of war. This led to some of the worst atrocities of the war being perpetrated, in which civilians accused of being snipers were massacred by the Germans.
While it is not clear how much the Guard Civique really took part in the early war, we wanted to include them in the game as an additional defense force and potential roadblock to the Germans. Given the uncertain nature of their involvement as well as their abilities, we decided to randomize the placement and strength of the Guard Civique. At the beginning of the game, players roll 2d6 and compare against the chart on the map to determine placement. Doubles result in no placement. Counters are placed upside down with the values hidden, and then are only revealed either when German forces enter the location or when cavalry is used to scout out the location. The Guard Civique combat ratings vary from 4 to 6, with several counters being completely blank thus indicating that there is no force present. This random placement, as well as the “untried” status of the Guard Civique units, also help raise the solitaire suitability of the game, as well as its general replayablity – no two games will ever have the same setup.
Grant: What type of units are represented in the game? Can you show us good pictures of each type of unit?
Ryan: There are basically two type of units represented in the game, infantry with attached artillery and cavalry. Here are a look at a few of the units:
Grant: I notice that there is a unique way you have shown the unit’s movement and combat rating. Why is this the case? Are you concerned that there may be negative discussion about this amongst the grognards?
Ryan: Amazingly, this is the question that we have received the most from playtesters and reviewers. In the prototype, the unit’s movement ratings are placed on the left side of the counters and the combat ratings are placed on the right side of the counters. This was not done in an effort to try to incorporate anything radically different into the game but rather because it seemed to make the most sense to design this way as movement precedes combat. Tom Russell will be redesigning the counters and I am fairly certain he will be sticking with convention and will switch the ratings back to the standard.
Grant: Why did you feel the random chit pull mechanic was the best choice for the design? What unique challenges does it confront players with?
Ryan: We felt the chit pull mechanism really worked for a number of reasons. First, we were inspired by the use of chits in such games as Across 5 Aprils (Victory Games) and A Victory Lost/A Victory Denied (Multiman Publishing), which are really good games. Second, the use of chits helps create an air of uncertainty, in that players can never be sure how the game turn will play out. Third, it adds more replay value as the exact sequence of army movement will always be changing. And finally, it can create some truly bizarre, wonderful, funny and/or frustrating moments; for example, pulling three “end of day” chits in a row when a player really needs to move a certain army. As the saying goes, no plan survives contact with the enemy, and we feel chit-pulling reflects this very well.
Grant: When are new chits added to the draw pool?
Ryan: All Event Chits and the majority of the leader chits are added to the pool at the beginning of the game. Other leader chits are added to the pool during the game. The French leaders, Lanrezac and de Cary, are added on the 2nd and 3rd turns respectively. Duke Albrecht, the leader of the German 4th Army, is also added during the 3rd turn. Finally John French, the leader of the BEF, is added on the 4th turn. Due to the randomness of the chit pull, the chits are added about a turn earlier than when their historical counterparts actually took part in the war.
Grant: Tell us about the makeup of the Event Chits. What events are included and how are they activated once drawn? What type of tension does this create?
Ryan: Event Chits are added to the draw pool at the beginning of the game. The events chosen include both historical events, as well as alternative events. The events are available to be used once drawn from the pool. If available, the player to whom the event applies can activate it. Depending on the event, it can be activated prior to movement or prior to combat. The events are put back into the pool at the end of the turn. Events include:
Forced March (German) – +1 to German movement
Forced March (Allied) – +1 to Allied movement
Zeppelins (German) – +1 to German attack rolls
Sabotage (Allied) – -1 to German movement
Big Bertha (German) – +1 German hit on fort. Also allows for defense against fort fire.
The use of events like these provide an extra layer of interest and challenge to the game, as both players have to always be aware of the events available, as well as the ones still left to be chosen from the pool. This creates a tension to the game as both players are trying to out strategize each other as regards to the most effective use of the Event Chits.
Grant: How does combat work in the design? Why do battles only last one round? Why is this essential for the design?
Ryan: Once a unit moves into a town or city occupied by opposing forces, combat occurs. Each side counts up the number of units available and sorts them by their combat ratings. Each player then rolls d6 equal to the number of units and compares the results to the combat ratings. Rolls greater than or equal to the combat rating count as a hit against the opposing player. Dice rolls are simultaneous, and each player applies hits as he or she sees fit. All dice roll modifiers due to events must be chosen prior to the dice being rolled. Battles only last one round and the army must be reactivated to continue battle. This was essential to the design given the length of each turn. Given that each turn is equivalent to 3 days and that the battles lasted anywhere from 1 to 3 days, it did not make sense to allow for multiple rounds of battle.
Grant: What actions are available at the conclusion of a battle? Why did you feel these actions were needed?
Ryan: At the conclusion of a battle, the side that suffered the greatest number of hits must retreat back one spot towards their home country. Ties go to the defender. If the attacking player outnumbers the defender by 5 to 1, eliminates the defender, and suffers no losses in the process, the player may advance one space after the battle. The only exception to this is in siege combat, in which both sides can remain in the same spot at the conclusion of battle unless the attacker suffers the greatest number of hits and then he or she must retreat. These actions were included in the game because they seemed to model most effectively the nature of the battles during the early part of WWI. Battles were much more mobile then, and the only instance in which armies would get bogged down would be during the lengthy siege of forts.
Grant: How does siege combat work? Why did you decide to give forts 4 reduction steps? Did you ever experiment with other numbers?
Ryan: Siege combat works a little bit differently than standard combat. When the German player enters a fort space, the appropriate fort marker is placed on the space (a 4 step marker for the major forts and a 2 step marker for the minor forts.) This marker represents the fort’s defense and its garrison. Initially, the forts could only roll one die in defense against the German attack. This proved too underpowered and we thus modified it so that the fort rolls a d6 die equal to the current strength of the fort. In an attack against a fort, the German player must first destroy any units present at the fort before doing any damage to the fort itself. Since a siege action may take several turns, the German player may stay at the fort after the conclusion of battle as long as he or she does not take losses in excess of the Allied player. The decision to use four steps for the major forts was based on the overall strength of forts and the period of time in which historically it took to destroy the forts. Although we never experimented with other reduction numbers, 4 has proved to be a fairly effective and accurate number.
Grant: What happens when a unit located in a fort has its activation chit drawn? What options do they have? What are the players’ decision points with these units?
Ryan: When a chit is drawn that matches the color of the fort and/or the color of the unit located in the fort (green for the Belgians and blue for the French), the player then has several options: 1. The player can activate all of his or her forces and lead an all-out attack on the forces besieging the fort. In this case, besieging forces do get the opportunity to return fire. 2. The player can choose to just activate the fort and fire at the besieging forces using the forts artillery. The artillery hit on a roll of 5 on a d6 equal to the strength of the fort. In this case, the besieging forces can only fire back if they possess and use the ‘Big Bertha’ Event Chit. 3. The units in the fort can choose to retreat up to their maximum movement value.
Grant: How is victory ultimately determined? In your playtests, what is the percentage of wins by the more powerful Germans? Is this number satisfactory to your design outcome?
Ryan: In order for the German player to achieve victory, he or she must destroy both the forts at Liège and Namur, and must capture a town or fort across the victory line with infantry (not cavalry) while not committing 5 atrocities. Since there is a ‘race the clock’ component to the game, the German player must do all of the above any time on the August 19-21 turn. If the German player accomplishes all the victory requirements but does so anytime on the August 22-24 turn, it is a draw. Failure to accomplish the victory requirements by the end of the August 25-27 turn results in a win for the Allied player. At this point, we are still conducting playtesting and do not have all of the numbers back as regards to the percentage of wins. Preliminary data is showing that it is much more difficult (although not impossible) for the Allied player to win. While balance is important to a game, we would be happy if the German player won 70-80% of the time. Anything greater than that may require some tweaking in the development process.
Grant: What has changed throughout the playtest process? Please give a few specific examples.
Ryan: Game design is an ever evolving process and Brave Little Belgium went through several major changes throughout the design process. One of the first major changes, was the simplification of the movement system. While the game was always point to point, we originally had rail, road, and overland connections between the points. It was very convoluted and difficult to follow. We thus simplified the map, providing one connection between the points and varying the movement points required depending on whether traveling over the flatland of the north and west or the hillier, forested of the Ardennes region in the south. While that simplification basically worked, it failed to take into account the rail transport in the Ardennes region. We thus changed the map again, color-coding the connection lines to indicate the movement points required: a black line requires one movement point and a red line requires two movement points.
Another area that changed several times through development and playtesting was the atrocity rule. While we knew from the beginning that we wanted to include some mechanism for the Germans to commit atrocities and to be penalized for them, we could not quite figure out how to fit in the system. We initially thought about connecting them somehow to the Garde Civique forces and/or the overrun system, but nothing really panned out with that. We then temporarily placed an atrocity counter in as an Event Chit and tested the game to see how frequently it would be pulled and how that would affect the game. It wasn’t pretty, as the German player was losing fairly frequently by the fifth turn due to the Random Atrocity draw coming up most of the time. We knew it needed to be fixed and saw only three options: Keep it random and increase the maximum number of atrocities that can be accrued, come up with a new system, or scrap it.
A late night brainstorm saved us from scrapping the system and led to the creation of the current system. We tied the end of turn mechanism together with the atrocity mechanism and thus created a more elegant system in which the German player can still move any unmoved forces at the end of the turn, but in doing so risks atrocities being committed.
Grant: What are you most proud of in the design?
Ryan: Besides the atrocity system mentioned above, we are proudest of the basic chit pull system incorporated into the game. While not novel, the choice of the chit pull system proved to be a perfect match for the topic being covered, as well as the story that we were trying to tell.
Grant: What has been the response from those who have tried the game?
Ryan: We have been very lucky to have the opportunity to share the game with individuals at conventions, as well as with a really good group of playtesters. The feedback has been very positive and extremely encouraging. Here are some comments from the playtesters and reviewers:
Curt Hudson: “The point to point movement does a good job of replicating terrain effects without a terrain effects chart. The effects chits and fort rules also help replicate the effects of terrain and assets available to each army. The sequencing of leaders is a really elegant way to replicate the opening of the war without a ton of chrome rules for each leader chit.”
Maurice Fitzgerald (Moe’s Game Table): “What I found most compelling with BLB is the true David vs. Goliath feel it brings to the table, while still providing a plausible course for Belgium to win the game. At first glance you’d expect the Belgians to be little more than a tiny speed bump against the onslaught of the German war machine, but the point-to-point movement and variable setup allow for a smart, defensively-minded player a solid chance to frustrate the German advance and make it a much more even contest than you’d expect.”
Richard Tripeer (Chance of Gaming Podcast): “We are having a really good time with it. It is a small game. It definitely looks like one of those small coffee shop games; easily fits on a table. You can play it in 30-45 minutes. I am really looking forward to the actual game coming out.”
Grant: What is the anticipated production schedule for Brave Little Belgium?
Ryan: Hollandspiele will be working on the map, counters, and rules over the next 4 months with an anticipated release of very early 2019.
Grant: What other projects are the two of you working on or considering?
Ryan: The basic rules system incorporated into Brave Little Belgium will lend itself well to other asymmetric battles and/or race against time scenarios. We are thus contemplating several ‘sequels’ to Brave Little Belgium covering topics as disparate as the Pennsylvania campaign of the Civil War and the Romanian invasion of Transylvania during WWI. In addition, we have completed design on Space Race, which is an educational family card game about the Space Race between the US and Soviet Union. Finally, we are experimenting with some ideas on a war game covering the entirety of the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812.
Thanks to Ryan and Dave for their time in answering our many questions about their upcoming Brave Little Belgium. You can follow Ryan on Twitter at @ryanheilman and follow the game’s development on the Brave Little Belgium Facebook page at the following link: https://www.facebook.com/bravelittlebelgiumgame/
Thank you so much for posting this interview. It looks great!
You are welcome Ryan. Thanks for your effort in it and the game. I eagerly await Brave Little Belgium.
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